Tuesday, February 7, 2012


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Beowulf, A True Epic Hero

An epic hero is a man of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, has loyalty and generosity, speaks genuinely in prolonged speeches, is celebrated for his bold exploits, and undertakes obstacles to protect his society (Benson ). In the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, Beowulf is depicted as the epic hero as he exemplifies all the qualities of this type of hero. However, some beg to differ, stating that he is the opposite of a hero; rather he is a ‘bully’. But if he is a ‘bully’ then why does he fit the definition of a true epic hero? First, he is of noble birth and possesses supernatural strength. Beowulf also is a loyal and generous warrior who keeps both his king and his kingdom at heart. In addition, his tone is serious and his language grand. He also undertakes quests to achieve something of tremendous value to himself and his society. At the end of his quest, his people glorify him. Therefore, these characteristics make Beowulf a true epic hero.

A characteristic that Beowulf possesses that defines him as a true epic hero is that he is born of noble birth. He is the son of Ecgtheow, who married King Hrethel’s only daughter. Due to his father’s “abandonment and death”, his maternal grandfather, King Hrethel, raised him (Benson 6). Beowulf, “being a great warrior”, went to Denmark to fight (Benson 7). When he returned from Denmark, Hygelac, and Ecgtheow’s brother-in-law welcomed him. With the consent of Hygelac, Beowulf went to fight Grendel. He was adhered to be sent from divine order to fight against evil and save his kingdom from subjugation when the Danes stated, “…Our Holy Father has sent him as a sign of his grace, a mark of his favor, to help us defeat Grendel and end that terror”(Beowulf 81-84). Consequently, he was seen to be of noble birth through the eyes of his people.

Another trait that defines Beowulf as a true epic hero is his supernatural strength. Indeed, “His bravery and power surpassed all mortal men” (Huppe 4). The poet described Beowulf as “…greater/And stronger than anyone anywhere in this world” (Beowulf 15-16). Because of this trait he is seen as a hero in the eyes of his fellow men. He is able to use his super-human physical strength and courage to put his people before himself. One of his fellow warriors said “out of all the men on earth, one greater/ Than has come with you” (Beowulf 47-4). Beowulf fought in numerous battles and returned victorious from all but his last. When he went to fight he was very confident and implied “…the monsters scorn of men/ is so great that he needs no weapons and fears none/ Now will I…” (Beowulf 4-44). He swum for seven nights and stopped to kill nine sea creatures in the depths of the ocean. Also, with his bare hands he ripped off the arm of Grendel, a monster that has been terrorizing the Danes for twelve years. The reason why Beowulf decided to kill Grendel without any armor is because he felt that he should have “no advantage” over Grendel, thus proving to his people that his supernatural strength in turn makes him courageous and skillful (Huppe ). This is shown when he assured the Danish Queen of defeat against Grendel

Cheap University Papers on beowulf

When we crossed the sea, my comrades

And I, I already knew that all

My purpose was this to win the good will

Of your people or die in battle, pressed

In Grendel’s fierce grip. Let me live in greatness

And courage, or here in this hall welcome,

My death! (Beowulf 61-67)

His supernatural strength is also exposed when he fought Grendel’s mother. He was able to slay her by slashing her neck with a giant’s sword that can only be lifted by a person as strong as Beowulf.

Another quality that Beowulf possesses that defines him as a true epic hero is that he is loyal and generous to the king and his kingdom. He respected the king, he was “ever loyal” to Hyglec, his kinsmen, and to Hygd the Queen of Geats (Brodeur 17). Because of his courageous abilities and loyalty to the king he was offered many gifts such as treasures and jewelry, but he usually turned them down or gave the assets to others in the kingdom. Even when he was offered the thrown by Hygd, he still turned it down. A further example of his loyalty to the king is shown when he was given treasures by Hygd to deliver to Hygelac. Beowulf could have easily taken some of the treasures since there was an over abundance of jewels, but being an honest hero, he delivered it in full to Hygelac. Not only did Beowulf show loyalty to the king, someone of high power, but he also showed a great deal to the common people. He never cared about wealth; rather he was all about honor and giving (Brodeur 18). In fact, Beowulf’s only request when he died was to have a light tower built in his name to help guide sailors in the darkness. Beowulf had set a prime example for all human beings relaying the necessity of brotherhood and friendship.

Another characteristic that exemplifies Beowulf as a true epic hero is his serious tone and grand language. He does not talk for any reason rather he has “great determination and intimidation” in his lengthy wordy speeches (Goldsmith 17). One prime example where this is shown is when he was addressing his fellow soldiers “We are Geats/ Men who follow Higlac. My father/ was a famous soldier…Forever, for as long as Herot towers/ High on your hills.” (Beowulf 60-85). In this speech he was indirectly telling the soldiers to be determined in their battle and to intimidate their enemies. Another example is shown when Unferth taunted Beowulf. He claimed that once Beowulf lost a swimming match against Breca and that Beowulf will meet with defeat for a second time when he faces Grendel in the mead-hall. Beowulf responded by saying, “Ah! Unferth, my friend, your face/ Is hot with Ale, and your tongue has tried/…May enter this hall that evil will be gone!” (Beowulf 50-607). Basically in his responsive speech, Beowulf intimidated Unferth by proving that he lost victoriously because he had swum for seven days and killed nine monsters along his way. Beowulf’s did not only have physical strength he also had verbal skills that he used to illustrate his heroism.

A fourth characteristic that defines Beowulf as an epic hero is he undertakes quests to achieve something of tremendous value to himself and his society. With great motives of gaining the people’s respect and restoring peace to the community, Beowulf requested to journey to Herot at a time of crisis to fend off it’s evil (Hume 1). He showed no sign of fear when he went into battles. He never looked back and always accomplished what he set out to do. He always explained his death wishes before going into battle and “requested to have any assets delivered to his people” (Hume 14). After some of his battles, Beowulf was crowned King of Danes. During his reign as King a fire dragon began to destroy the town that he built. In his last battle, Beowulf sought out to rid the town once again of its villain. He took the life of another monster, but this time he also died. In his last words he spoke of how he will die happy because his kingdom was now safe from harm, “I’d leave my armor to my son/…so long, if I look at this last of all prizes.” (Beowulf 7-751).

A final characteristic of Beowulf that makes him a true epic hero is that his people glorify him. After slaying Grendel and Grendel’s mother, he was regarded as a hero by many Thanes. He was also awarded gold and a festive feast was held for him by Heorot. Also he was given land to govern. His death was honorable as Wiglaf implied, “How often an entire country suffers/ on one man’s account! That time has come to use…” (Beowulf 077-078). At his funeral Wiglaf along with seven warriors gather treasure and carried the king along with it to the Cape of Whale. A pyre was built with helmets and shields surrounding it, and it was lit. The warriors sang a dirge and an old woman wailed in sorrow, proclaiming that “the bloodshed, shame and bondage is soon going to beset the Geats” (Harris 7). For ten days, the Geats work on the barrow, burying the ash from the funeral as well as the treasure in it, till a high mound was built. Then twelve brave warriors rode around it, bemoaning the death of the king, and of their sorrow, and singing a dirge highlighting his valor, and praising him for being the kindest and gentlest of kings, and foe being “most mindful” of his glory (Harris 8).

Even though many already agree and see Beowulf is a true epic hero. There are those who see Beowulf as a ‘bully’ rather then an epic hero. Two prime examples in which Beowulf is depicted as a ‘bully’ are presented in John Gardner’s Grendel and “Beowulf,” by Richard Wilbur.

In John Gardner’s Grendel, Grendel tells his side of the story. He feels useless in society and does not want to accept his given role. He states the he never set out to hurt man just understand him. He mentions that when he shows up for the first time in the mead hall he yells Mercy! Peace! (Grendel 7). No one even gives him a chance when he walks in holding a dead body and using it for protection against the drunken men swinging axes and swords at him, referring to Beowulf and his men (Grendel 8). Throughout the book, Grendel pretends to be innocent, which he is clearly not. If he was as innocent as he depicts himself to be then why would he return to a place where he does not feel accepted? The answer is because he likes to cause trouble. He tries to use the excuse that he was rejected by Beowulf and his men to justify his actions of going into the mead hall and causing distress to the common people.

Another example that depicts Beowulf as a ‘bully’ rather then a hero is presented in the poem “Beowulf” by Richard Wilbur. Here Wilbur compares Grendel to a child

It was a childish country; and a child,

Grown monstrous, so besieged them in the night

That all their daytimes were a dream of fright

That it would come and own them to the bones

The hero, to his battle reconciled,

Promised to meet that monster all alone. (Wilbur 15)

After reading such a verse one automatically thinks that Beowulf is a ‘bully’, since he wants to confront Grendel one on one. However, Wilbur fails to show what Grendel has done in Geatland. He does not mention that Grendel disturbed Geatland and was a threat to the kingdom. Why would someone be considered a ‘bully’ if they were providing protection to their kingdom? Beowulf did what a hero would do for his kingdom and that is to protect it from any harm.

As one can clearly see, Beowulf is a true epic hero. He is of noble birth and possesses great supernatural strength. Also he speaks in a serious tone and incorporates lengthy speeches. In addition he put his people’s welfare before his by undertaking quests to achieve something of significant value. At the end of his battles, his people glorify him. All of Beowulf’s heroic deeds and battles make him the superhero he desires to be. Perhaps what makes Beowulf live today, forever a legend of our past, is the fact that he did die, making him a mortal being; living and dying with the people, for the people, and as a person.

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